William Shakespeare was not the star of the show during his lifetime. In "Shakespeare in Love," Lee Hall's stage play adaptation of the Oscar-winning movie by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, the Bard is the romantic lead.
"Shakespeare is made a Shakespearean hero," Montgomery Sutton, the Dallas native who plays a young Shakespeare struggling with writer's block, said. Shakespeare Dallas' production of the romantic comedy is now playing at Samuell Grand Amphitheater through July 21.
Playing a fictional version of the playwright is a poetic turn for Sutton. His involvement in Junior Players led to an early appreciation of Shakespeare. He earned a BFA in Drama from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and continued his training at Atlantic Theater Company. He has performed in productions of "Twelfth Night," "Henry V, "Much Ado About Nothing," "King Lear," and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," to name a few. He is currently a New York-based actor, working as Master of Revels for Rude Grooms, a theater rooted in Elizabethan tradition.
For Sutton, performing Shakespeare exemplifies the connection between audience and artist. "There's something in his plays that acknowledges what is my favorite part of the theater experience, which is that at its core, at the bare minimum, an actor speaks to an audience member and they create a shared imaginative experience," Sutton said.
After a few years focused on performing in new plays, an opportunity to participate in Shakespeare Dallas' series "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" renewed his interest in the Bard. He learned about Passion in Practice, a London-based program led by Ben Crystal teaching actors about Shakespeare's original pronunciation and practices.
The program gave Sutton a fresh perspective of Shakespeare's language, explaining more than 90% of the words in Shakespeare's plays are still used today.
"That information freed me to be less concerned with making sure everybody understood everything and really getting back to the brass tacks of acting and focusing on what is clear and simple and understandable and letting the bigger images or the fantastical to be invented by the character in the moment," Sutton said.
Sutton was a member of the 2015 International Actor's Fellowship at Shakespeare's Globe. The five- week program assembled actors from around the world to deepen their performance skill set. The program used Shakespeare's cue scripts to teach improvisational stagecraft.
Shakespeare did not write a full script for each actor. He gave the actors scrolls with the origin of the role, the actor's lines and a few words to cue the actor. Exits, entrances and other stage directions were described only when they were not indicated in an actor's lines.
"There's all of these great tricks that are built into that where Shakespeare is building in attempted overlaps and building in false starts and building in one actor able to mess with another actor and make them look like they have gone up onstage and then another actor comes in and gives them their cue," Sutton said.
A few months after the fellowship, Sutton returned to Shakespeare's Globe to play Orsino in "Twelfth Night." Birds that flew onstage became new scene partners and the actors paused when airplanes flew over the open-air theater and threatened to drown out the actors' lines.
The Globe's outreach programs filled the theater with lively audiences of all ages, giving Sutton a sense of what it must have been like to perform in Shakespeare's time.
"People are shouting at you and you can shout back at them. You ask a question and they'll actually answer you," Sutton said. "This one night I was playing Orsino and towards the beginning, I had to flop down at the foot of the stage, and I felt these two girls grab my hands as I flopped down. So, I flipped around and held onto them."
Sutton shares his knowledge by teaching with Junior Players, Shakespeare Dallas and Rude Grooms. "I have a real passion for these plays being easier, more accessible, more human than people typically consider them to be or than the typical productions make them out to be and I get a huge thrill when someone is able to tap into that clarity and all of a sudden, you see them have so much ownership over this stuff they were terrified of the day before," Sutton said.
For those who love the movie, the stage play of "Shakespeare in Love" offers insight into what Shakespeare's world might have been like in 37 fast and flowing scenes. The show is more of an ensemble work, further developing the relationship between Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare and fleshing out more of the characters.
"The stage play goes even further than the movie into exploring the beauty and camaraderie and friendship and the play of what it took to create these plays," Sutton said.
At the heart of it is the love story between Will and Viola with fresh sparks of romance electrifying the Texas summer night. "If you really love that love story, you get to see it come to life in new ways with new fire every night," Sutton said.